The Scotch-Irish


We’ll sit upon the pint-stoup and we’ll talk of auld lang syne As we quaff the flowing haggis to our lasses’ bonnie eyne. And we’ll join the jubilation for the thing that we are not; For we say we aren’t Irish, and God knows we aren’t Scot!

(The members of the Scotch-Irish Society might have informed the satirist that one does not “quaff” haggis, a formidable pudding made with a sheep’s viscera.)

Yet for all the implicit snobbishness in the double name, it directs attention to geographical, historical, and cultural facts in the background of the Scotch-Irish people. The persistence of ancestral traits of character can be exaggerated and even given a mystical quality; but there is no doubt that tradition, ancient “sets” of mind, religious convictions, limitations of outlook, and abiding prejudices gave the Scotch-Irish qualities of personality and character that affected their life in America.

The people who began to come to America in 1717 were not Scots, and certainly they were not Irish: already they were Scotch-Irish, even though this name was rarely given them. The hyphen bespeaks two centuries of historical events, many of them tragic (“dark and drublie” was the Scottish phrase), some of them heroic. The ancestors of these people had come, in the century after 1610, from the Lowlands of Scotland across the twentymile channel to the northern province of Ireland (Ulster) as a result of a political experiment undertaken by England. It was called the Plantation of Ulster, and it was simply one of England’s many attempts to solve “the Irish problem.”

For five centuries, ever since the time of Henry II (1133–89), England had tried to rule Ireland, but the Irish refused to become docile subjects. Their resistance was intensified into bitterness when England became Protestant and tried to extirpate the Roman Catholic religion in Ireland. Finally, in Queen Elizabeth’s closing years, Irish earls in the north, after a desperate struggle, were defeated and exiled, and the Crown confiscated all their lands. James I, who followed Elizabeth in 1603, proposed (at the suggestion of Edmund Spenser and others of his counsellors) to settle this region with loyal English and Scottish Protestants who, in return for cheap land, would keep the Irish under control. Since the king had been James VI of Scotland before succeeding to the English crown, he was successful in persuading thousands of his Scottish subjects to cross to Ulster and start a new life there under advantageous economic circumstances.

Only a vivid modern imagination can conceive the squalor, indeed the near savagery, of the northern Irish counties around 1600. Queen Elizabeth called the inhabitants “the wild Irish.” She and her advisers looked upon them much as Victorians did African natives and other “lesser breeds without the law.” These Irishmen had no cities, no education, no refinements; they lived from hand to mouth at a primitive level (maintained, of course, by centuries of guerrilla fighting against the English). Their Catholic religion, a patriotic rallying point and a blessed solace, had acquired many elements of magic and superstition. Almost utter demoralization had ensued upon the defeat and exile of their leaders in the 1590’s.

The Scots who were invited (along with English Protestants) by King James to settle Ulster and subdue its natives were thus the first Scotch-Irishmen. They came from the Lowlands, that region nearest the English border and longest in contact with English ways, language, and ideas. They were not the romantic Highland figures of Scott’s novels. They were not clansmen who wore kilts and who marched, complete with dirk, sporran, brooch, and bonnet, to the skirling of bagpipes in the glens. On the contrary, they were farmers who eked out a bare living on thin soil as tenants of a laird. Three words best characterize them: they were poor, Presbyterian, and pertinacious.

Their farming methods were primitive. Crops were not rotated, and the yield was meager; starvation was always imminent in the long winters, for both man and beast. King James’s offer of a new start in Ireland on larger farms whose land had lain fallow was, therefore, very appealing, all the more because lairds in the Lowlands had recently demanded higher rents and contracts that made farmers feel a loss of traditional rights and dignity.

The first Scotsmen to pioneer in Ulster succeeded well enough to allure other thousands of Lowlanders, and when, in mid-century, troubles arose with the English king and his church, the exodus increased. The new Ulstermen ran the gamut of character, as pioneers do. Their motives for migration—desire for a better living, escape from problems and debts—indicate ambition and initiative. Some of the adventurers proved to be shiftless; others had qualities needing only opportunity to bring them to full flower. Most of the “planters” took their families with them, thus proclaiming their intention to stay and establish themselves. Socially, they were generally humble folk (aristocrats rarely migrate), but with tenacious qualities indispensable for pioneers.